Scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore have identified a way to prevent Type I diabetes in rats that are genetically prone to develop the disease.
The discovery could one day lead to the prevention, and possibly to the treatment, of autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes, which affects more than one million people in the United States. The findings are published in the February 22, 2005 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the study led by Alessio Fasano, M.D., professor of pediatrics, medicine and physiology and director of the University of Maryland Mucosal Biology Research Center, researchers used an animal model of diabetes and found a way to prevent the disease by changing the permeability of the intestinal wall.
Earlier research by Dr. Fasano and colleagues led to the discovery of the human protein zonulin. They observed that zonulin regulates the permeability of the intestines by controlling the opening and closing of specialized structures that act like gates between cells. When the body produces too much zonulin, these gates get stuck open for too long and allow undigested foodstuff, toxins and other bacterial and viral particles access to the immune system. That contact, in turn, leads to the production of antibodies that can destroy the insulin-producing islet cells in the pancreas among people genetically predisposed to develop Type 1 diabetes. The final result is the appearance of Type 1, or insulin-dependent, diabetes.
Dr. Fasano’s group also discovered that zonulin is produced in very large amounts in people who have autoimmune disorders such as diabetes, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. The researchers performed their latest study on rats that were genetically prone to develop Type 1 diabetes.